Gdansk, a Polish Jewel on the Baltics! πŸ‡΅πŸ‡±

About Gdansk

I visited Gdansk end of February, 2020 and spent 3 days there. In this blog, I will share with you my impressions about the city. Gdansk is a charming city on the Baltic sea located in Northern Poland. It is the 4th largest city in Poland and definitely one of the most magical and most charming cities not only in Poland but also in all Northern Europe. The city centre is compact and can be fully discovered on foot.

In addition to the beauty of the city, Gdansk has a historical importance as its a strategic and influential port city for thousands of years. Furthermore, The Second World War started when Nazi army invaded Poland from Westerplatte peninsula at the outskirt of Gdansk.

How to get there

I arrived there by a train which I boarded in Berlin and the whole trip took a bit less than 6 hours. There is another convenient way to get to Gdansk which is flying there; major European Airlines such as LOT Polish Airlines, Lufthansa and KLM fly to Gdansk in addition to low-cost carriers such as Ryan Air and Wizz Air. Therefore, there are plenty of options to get there. Also, you can take a very modern and comfortable high speed train from Warsaw to Gdansk and the journey takes less than 3 hours.

About my train ride to Gdansk, I booked a ticket from Berlin to Gdansk in first class for 37 Euros (43 USD). I booked the ticket online 3 weeks in advance from the German Railway site Deutsche Bahn. Click here to view the site. The price difference between 1st and 2nd class was less than 8 Euros so I got the 1st class ticket. In my opinion, the difference between 1st and 2nd class on this train was not a major one at all. 1st class passengers sit in a 6 seats compartment where each seat has a power port. While 2nd class passengers sit in 2-2 open space configuration. There was no dining car on the train and I wasn’t able to buy any food or drinks anywhere on the train. I didn’t know that beforehand so I starved a bit during the trip.

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Gdansk’s charming city centre

Gdansk is a beautiful city and the whole city centre is walkable; it’s exactly a 15 minutes walk from the main train station to the old town square. The city is full of gorgeous looking buildings in harmonic colours. I stayed there for 3 nights and I think it was about right to enjoy Gdansk. However, if you are planning to discover the metropolitan area of Tri-city (Gdansk, Sopot and Gdynia), then you will probably need a few more days. Gdansk is part of the Tri-city metropolitan area which also consists of Sopot and Gdynia; a light-rail ride (it’s called SKM) from Gdansk to Sopot takes around 15 to 20 minutes and it’s 10 minutes more from Sopot to Gdynia.

Westerplatte; it is where 2nd world war started

Westerplatte is where Nazi army invaded Poland on September 1st, 1939 and is famous of the battle of Westerplatte where the first clash between Nazi and Polish forces took place. It is where the World War II started at the European front.

Westerplatte is a must see site if you are in Gdansk. There is a great monument there that is definitely worth a visit. It’s a place where everybody can learn a lot from and I am so grateful that we have a peaceful Europe today hoping that the whole world will live in peace and without wars someday. I know that it’s not a realistic wish but let’s wish to have this someday.

To get there, you can either take the bus number 106 from central station and it takes about 36 minutes and then you need to walk for 10 more minutes to reach the monument or you can simply order an Uber. I was in a hurry so I took an Uber ride and it costed me 25 Polish Zloty (6.5 USD) each way. Ride took exactly 15 minutes.

Westerplatte monument

The museum of Second World War in Gdansk

In my second day, I met my great Polish friend who is my good friend since 2013. We started the day in the Museum of second world war in Gdansk which is a must do there. I personally can’t imagine a trip to Gdansk without visiting this museum. It’s great to learn a lot about the history of the war from Polish perspectives. The museum is absolutely massive, very informative and has many exhibits. We spent a couple of hours there. A ticket to museum costs around 6 USD and I recommend that you dedicate 2 to 3 hours for your museum tour.

Sopot

Gdansk is part of the Tri-City metropolitan area which also includes Gdynia and Sopot. Before the trip, I had no plans to visit Sopot as I thought that I will barely have enough time to see everything I wanted to see in Gdansk. However, my friend suggested to show me the beach area in Sopot so we drove there. We had a walk on Sopot pier which is the longest wooden pier in Europe. It is a magnificent beach and the walk on the pier is just breath-taking. The weather was acceptable as it was much warmer than the average weather in this time of the year. We even managed to enjoy some sunshine, which is rare in Northern Poland. I heard from my frined that Sopot area gets incredibly crowded in summer time as it becomes a hot spot for Polish and European vacationers.

The walk on pier was beautiful and at the end of it, there is a very nice restaurant called Meridian Molo. We made a stop there and had a delicious apple pie.

The dark blue water of Baltic Sea
Baltic Sea
Delicious Polish Apple Pie

Back to Gdansk charming city centre

We drove back to Gdansk and had a walk in the historical city centre where I had another chance to enjoy the colours of the charming looking buildings there. It is truly one of the most gorgeous town centres I have ever seen. On top of that, there are many great restaurants, cafes and bars there and the ones I tried were excellent.

To conclude the beautiful day, I had to try the famous Polish Pierogi and Polish winter tea in a nice restaurant in Gdansk called Kaszubska Marina. It was the best Pierogis I’ve ever had.

More colours
A trip to Poland is not a trip to Poland without eating Pierogi

Leaving Gdansk to Warsaw

After 3 great days in Gdansk, I left the city to Warsaw with the high-speed Pendolino train. High speed rail service in Poland started in 2014. The train was modern and clean and the service was great. I booked a ticket in advance so I was able to find a 1st class ticket from Gdansk to Warsaw for 30 USD. I recommend buying a ticket in advance as you can almost always find a good deal when you do so. Journey took a bit less than 3 hours. You can buy a ticket directly from the Polish railway website. Click here

Once I boarded a train, an attendant approached me and distributed a little menu. You will be able to choose from a list of cold sandwiches and 2 drinks. The food tasted really good. Also, the seat is very comfortable, adjustable, wide, large legroom, has a power port and a hook to hang your coat. Furthermore, the train has a restaurant car, in case you want to have more food. It was one of the best train rides I’ve ever had.

Summary

Gdansk is a cute city, it is a Polish jewel on the Baltic and it can definitely be a European weekend gateway. Also, you can add it to your North/East Europe itinerary if you are touring that part of Europe. Along with Krakow, it’s one of the most beautiful cities in Poland and you can really find beauty and peace in this city. Furthermore, from what I heard, nightlife in Gdansk can be really cool and interesting but this is something I couldn’t check out myself.

I will list below recommended places for coffee, food, and drinks which I tried myself:
Restaurants:
-Restauracja Gvara; not many dishes on the menu but it’s delicious. Service is very friendly and professional. It can be a bit expensive for Poland.
-SurfBurger; seriously good burger place
-Meridian Molo (In Sopot); a bit expensive for Poland but worth it
-Kaszubska Marina; I had great Pierogi there
-Czerwony Piec; delicious casual Italian pizza place in Gdynia.
Coffee shops:
-MΕ‚ynek Cafe; cute coffee place with great coffee and friendly service
-Ciekawa Kawiarnia; you have to go there as they employ disabled people and that proved that they have a great potential. Taste of coffee and cake there is amazing. undefined
Bars
-Pub Red Light: don’t worry, it’s not what you think, it’s just a name πŸ™‚ . They make good cocktails there!

I stayed in a beautiful, sunny and spacious Airbnb apartment right at the old town. Location couldn’t be any better and the apartment was perfect. Once again, make sure you read the reviews carefully and check amenities before you book your Airbnb place.

I guess that’s all I can say about Gdansk for now. If you have any thoughts, questions or comments, please let me know.

Minsk, the Capital of the Mysterious Country of Belarus πŸ‡§πŸ‡Ύ

About Belarus

Belarus is a landlocked country in Eastern Europe; boarded by Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. Minsk is the capital and most populous city. 40% of Belarus’ area is forest. Belarus declared its Independence in 1991 after the Soviet Union was dissolved. Prior to that, Belarus was part of the Soviet Union and was known as Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. During WWII, Belarus lost about quarter of its population and half of its economic resources.

Why Minsk?

I have a serious interest in former Soviet Union countries; I visited many of them and found a deep connection with their culture. They are exotic and mysterious as they were behind iron curtain for many years but they recently started to open up and show the world a lot of their inner beauty. In the last few years, I am glad that I discovered so many fascinating things about a culture which I didn’t know much about in the past.

Belarusian people have their own national culture but they also have a lot in common with their Russian and Ukrainian brothers; they were living in the same country/empire for many years so they have a common history, traditions, habits and they all communicate using Russian language. Belarus was the 9th former USSR country I visited (I have visited 2 more former USSR countries later after this trip) and I truly found the city of Minsk interesting and worth visiting.

Minsk is a very clean and organized city. In fact, it’s one of world’s cleanest cities. People I met and interacted with in Minsk were extremely polite, considerate and respectful. Minsk is a very affordable city to visit and a very safe city to travel to.

Belarus is generally a country that is out of comfort zone of an ordinary traveller so expect to put some extra effort to get there and to understand how things work there. It is still a developed and modern nation though but there are a few things there which are slightly different and you need to have such expectations before you head there.

Entry Requirements

In the past, holders of EU and North American passports needed a visa to enter Belarus and they had to apply for an expensive visa in advance. Thankfully, the procedure has become a bit simplified as citizens of these countries don’t need to apply for a visa in advance to visit Belarus anymore. However, the only way to get a 30 days visa free travel to Belarus is to land and leave from Minsk International airport providing that visitors don’t fly from or to Russia. For more information about the visa free entry to Belarus, click here.

Approaching Minsk National Airport

I flew from Dusseldorf, Germany through Warsaw, Poland with Polish Lot Airlines. Once I landed, and before proceeding to passport control window, I had to buy an mandatory health insurance. When I bought it, I only needed to declare number of days I am planning to spend in Belarus, they did the calculation for me and then paid using a credit card (you can pay by cash). The approximate cost of the mandatory health insurance was around 1 Euro per day.

After collecting the medical insurance, I simply headed to passport control window. Expect the passport control officer to examine your passport thoroughly and to ask you some questions. My officer was friendly and he smiled when I said Hello in Russian language. He reminded me that I need to be registered if I am willing to stay in the country for more than 5 days. If you are staying in a hotel, the hotel will perform the registration for you so you don’t have to worry about it. If you are staying in an Airbnb apartment, the landlord must do it for you but some landlords aren’t familiar with the process so if you are staying in Belarus for more than 5 days, make sure to inform your landlord about it before you book your apartment. Furthermore, I believe that there’s a way to register online so you don’t need the landlord for that but check the government site for registration and double check. Anyhow, for more information about registration, click here .

Planning a trip to Minsk isn’t complicated yet it’s not a very simple process, especially if you are not used to all the visa and registration hassle. However, in my opinion, this shouldn’t stop you from visiting this great country. It is still worth it to visit Belarus.

Best time to visit

Without any doubt, it’s the summer! I visited Minsk in June, 2019 and the weather was incredibly perfect. It was a bit hot though (Temperature was above 30 degrees) but that was definitely better than below zero temperature in the winter. Minsk is still not as touristic as many other European cities so even visiting it in the summer doesn’t necessarily mean that it will be packed with tourists.

Getting to the city centre

If you land in Minsk airport (I assume you will land in Minsk airport unless you already have a Belarusian visa or you enjoy a visa free entry to Belarus), you will need about 45 minutes to reach the city centre by taxi and that would cost you around 15 USD. I recommend using Yandex taxi app, it’s very reliable and affordable. Minsk airport is located a bit outside the city so it’s not a short ride to the city centre. There is a cheaper way to get to the city centre which is bus (there is a bus every half an hour) and it costs around 2 USD and journey takes about an hour. You can buy a ticket from a kiosk; English language option is available and it accepts credit cards. Speaking of credit cards, I visited Belarus 3 times (twice in Minsk and once in Brest) and never needed to use any cash as credit cards are accepted almost everywhere, even at the metro, you just tap your credit card at the gate and that’s it.

Museum Strana Mini (Miniatures)

I had dinner in a great Georgian restaurant right after I have landed and next morning, the first place I wanted to visit in Minsk was this awesome miniatures museum. I booked a guided tour with a knowledgeable and friendly guide. I learned so many things about the country during my visit. The museum has more than 20 miniatures of major attractions in Belarus and that visit to the museum encouraged me to learn more about the history of other cities such as Brest which I visited later in February 2020. Museum ticket costs around 6.7 USD and a guided tour is for about 4 USD extra. It was worth it and I highly recommend it.

Belarusian state museum of the history of the great patriotic war

This museum is not only a must visit if you are in Minsk but it’s also one of the best WWII museums I have ever seen in my entire life. As I mentioned above, Belarus lost quarter of its population in the 2nd World War and the entire Soviet Union lost nearly 27 Million people. That’s one of the reasons why former USSR countries call it “The Great Patriotic War”. There are endless stories about that war, not only in Belarus but in all countries which were affected by it. The building is impressive and it’s one of the very few buildings where I spotted a Soviet flag still waving on top of it. I believe that the nation of Belarus has a peace and consolation with its Soviet past and of course, they will never ever forget those who lost their lives while defending their motherland. I admire such great values and I have a huge respect towards it.

There is a lot to talk about when it comes to history and war. Therefore, I will just leave you with the photos below:

Outside the great patriotic war museum, one of the best WW2 museums I’ve ever seen
Beautiful culture…

Minsk Botanical Garden

I wasn’t planning to visit Minsk Botanical Garden but my beloved friend recommended it so we ended up going there and it was a great idea! Countless number of exotic plants and flowers from all over the world and the place is very quiet and peaceful! It was a little bit hot that day and I admit that I was complaining about the heat a bit but we still enjoyed it a lot. It was a very beautiful day. Once again, a photo can say a thousand of words:

National Library

National Library of Belarus is an “interesting” looking building that was built in 2006. Some people find it “ugly” but I guess I like the design. Unfortunately, I realized that I didn’t take any photo of the building from outside but if you want to see how it looks like, simply click here.

The view of Minsk suburbs from the observation deck on top of the building is beautiful and worth seeing. There’s also a little cafe next to the observation deck where we had a delicious dessert and Belarusian bottled ice tea (it was tasty). This huge library is less than 8 minutes walk from Uschod subway station.

Borisov Arena

During my stay in Minsk, there was a football game in the European Championship qualifying between Belarus vs Northern Ireland. It was an opportunity for me to visit a charming looking arena and was also a chance to board the Belarusian train and to be somewhere outside the city. Borisov Arena is the home stadium of Belarusian team BATE Borisov; they played in Champions League several times and they even managed to blow a huge surprise once by beating FC Bayern Munich 3:1. It’s an interesting looking arena and it was a cool game to watch. Belarus lost the game 0:1. Trip from Minsk central station to Borisov takes around an hour.

Food in Minsk

Food in Minsk was a great surprise! Prior to my visit, I had no clue about Belarusian cuisine; I only knew that Belarusian people are obsessed with potatoes. Well, that turned out to be true but there are also many other tasty and interesting dishes. On top of that, Belarusian people are incredibly friendly so expect to be well fed if someone invites you to their home and expect to gain some weight too πŸ™‚

I tried many dishes and they were all delicious but if you are in Minsk, you must try Draniki (potato pancakes). I got addicted to pancakes and was having them everyday for breakfast.

Extra thing to do

I visited Minsk again in the winter and had the opportunity to spend a day in a spa called Riviera. It was one of the most relaxing days in my whole life. There are more than 12 different types of Saunas there; Finnish, Russian, Belarusian, Himalayan, etc … in addition to different swimming pools and baths. It is absolutely worth it to spend the entire day there when you are in Minsk. I highly recommend it.

Amazing spa

Summary

Minsk is a great city and is definitely worth visiting for a few days. Remember, it was extremely difficult to travel to Belarus in the past unless you arrange for a visa in advance but that makes it a very exotic destination. It is an ideal destination if you are fed up with other touristic cities in Europe or if you are interested in Soviet history and the culture of Belarus and former USSR.

If you live in Europe, you can fly to Minsk cheaply with AirBaltic or with one of the major European Airlines (Lufthansa, KLM, Air France, Turkish Airlines) in addition to Belavia (Belarusian Airlines – I really like them), or even Ukraine International. If you live in the Middle East, I guess Turkish Airlines is your best bet. If you live in North America, probably Lot Polish Airlines is your best option. Anyhow, click here if you are looking for good deals via Skyscanner.

The city is affordable; public transportation is very cheap (metro ticket costs 0.35 USD) and taxi is also cheap. For a reliable taxi app, use Yandex taxi and avoid hailing for a taxi in the street as you might be charged extra, especially if you don’t speak Russian fluently. I found Minsk affordable but it’s definitely not as cheap as Moldova, Georgia, or even Ukraine and of course, prices in restaurants, cafes, and bars are very high for local people who live and work there.

About language, it’s true that many people don’t speak English there but most of young people do or at least they try their best to communicate with visitors. There are English menus in many restaurants and cafes; most of cafes and restaurants I visited had English menus but not all of them do. It’s a good idea to learn some Russian phrases and to learn how to read Cyrillic alphabets.

The architecture is mainly Soviet as the city was re-built after WWII so expect to see lots of Soviet style apartment buildings and very wide avenues. Yet, it’s very clean, organized, and everything there is functioning very well.

Minsk is a nice city but I admit that it lacks the charm which many capitals in Europe have. It is not a cosy city at all yet it’s a great city to visit that is full of interesting history, good value for money, beautiful nature, spotless clean, safe, and most importantly, it’s full of polite and friendly people.

During my stay, I stayed in an Airbnb apartment. I recommend using Airbnb in Minsk but before you go ahead and book, read the reviews carefully and make sure the place has excellent ratings. Luckily, the apartment I stayed at in Minsk was fantastic.

So book a flight to Minsk now and explore its beauty and mystery before it becomes more touristic and less real.

St. Petersburg in the Winter; A Beautiful Fairy tale! πŸ‡·πŸ‡Ί

Why did I decide to visit SPb in the winter?

This short blog is about my winter trip to St. Petersburg in February 2018 where I spent 4 days there. Prior to this trip, I visited St. Petersburg in September 2017 for the first time and I instantly fell in love with the city; I got addicted to it so I decided to visit it again in February, 2018.

St. Petersburg is the Russia’s gateway to Europe, the cultural capital of Russia, it is definitely the most beautiful city in Russia and one of the prettiest cities in the world. It is the city of charm; the city of art, the city of beauty, the city of Tsars, and the city of gorgeous architecture. Peter the great built the city in 1703 (no surprise why it carries his name).

It is my favourite city and I can’t get enough of it. Visiting St. Petersburg brought to me a lot of happiness and I have beautiful memories and great friends there. The city will always have a special place in my heart.

Winter Palace in the middle of the Russian winter

This blog is just a short summary of the winter visit to the city. There will be another blog about my summer trip in St. Petersburg where you will be able to view more information about sightseeings, things to do, places to visit, cost, etc…

Visa

The good news is; citizens of a total of 53 countries (including EU citizens) can now apply for eVisa to visit St. Petersrbug and it will be valid for a duration of 8 days to visit SPb and Leningrad region. For more information about visa, click Here.

The bad news is; citizens of Canada, United States, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom are not included in the new e-Visa system. This is terrible and frustrating. Passport holders of these countries have to apply for a visa prior to heading anywhere in Russia, which means, you have to fill an application, get an invitation letter online click here , personal photo, and pay fees. Russian visa is not a complicated visa to get but it can be costly and time consuming. I applied for the visa in VFS Global visa application centre in Toronto; took about 2 weeks and costed me around 100 USD. Note that I have just checked and found out that they no longer process Russian visas anymore. If you want to apply for a Russian visa in Canada, check the Russia visa centre website here

The flight

I was living in Toronto, Canada when I had this trip to St. Petersburg. I needed to visit my parents in Kuwait so I managed to find a great deal on expedia and booked the following itinerary; Toronto – London – St. Petersburg; St. Petersburg – London – Kuwait; Kuwait – London – Toronto.

I must admit that it was hectic but I was very excited about visiting St. Petersburg again. I flew with British Airways; 1st leg from Toronto to London was a very comfortable flight in a brand-new B787 dreamliner but the flight from London to St. Petersburg which took around 3 hours was a bit strange as there was no service during the flight (not even a cup of coffee).

St. Petersburg in a winter night

I arrived at the hotel 5th corner where I spent 4 nights. It’s the same hotel where I stayed in my previous trip to St. Petersburg. It’s very clean, tidy, practical, and in a great location so it was perfect for me. I checked-in and had a quick nap before getting ready to go out. I must admit that it’s challenging to fly from Canada or USA to Europe or Middle East for a few days only as flights are long and jet-lag can easily drive you crazy (I was jet-lagged the whole time in St. Petersburg). However, I decided to focus on one thing only; to utilize the short time I have there to the maximum and to have as much fun as possible as such an opportunity to escape work and to travel doesn’t come very often, especially when I was in Canada.

I got ready to go out to see a very close person to me who lives in St. Petersburg; it was freezing cold, canals were frozen, it was silent, and I even felt more cold because I was exhausted after the long flight. We went to a beautiful area called New Holland which is a historical artificial triangular island dated from the 18th century. There are many nice coffee shops, bars and restaurants there. There is also a beautiful outdoor skating rink during the winter. We ended up having Georgian food and Russian tea.

Catharina’s Palace is a winter fairy tale

I believe I was lucky in this trip as snow was white and pure; there was no dirt or slush and sidewalks were clean and easily accessible. I had no problem roaming around the city in such a weather; the temperature was around -10 but it didn’t feel extremely cold.

I had plans to visit Catharina’s Palace which is located in Pushkin, it’s about 40 minutes drive from the city centre of St. Petersburg. Before heading there, I had a quick yet a delicious breakfast in a Russian bakery.

Fresh and delicious Russian pies

I was visiting Catherina’s Palace for the first time as I didn’t have time to visit it in my previous trip. Catharina’s Palace is the summer residence of Russian Tsars. Although it was a weekday and it was in the middle of the winter, there was a long queue outside the palace. I remember paying something around 10 USD for the ticket. The palace is absolutely gorgeous and the highlight of the trip was the Amber Room which before its loss in WWII, was considered an 8th wonder of the world. The room was reconstructed by Russia and Germany and took about 24 years to finish the reconstruction of it, can you imagine? It’s a marvellous place. Sadly, it’s not allowed to take pictures of Amber Room so I am unable to post any here but if you want to read about it, click here

The area surrounding the palace was all white so it looked like a winter fairy tale and I am so lucky to capture such moments while being there in that time of the year.

After the palace tour, I bought a Russian fur hat (Ushanka) and it worked great in the cold weather.

Winter Palace in the middle of the winter

Winter Palace was the official resident of Russian Tsars 1732 to 1917. Today it is a landmark of the city of St. Petersburg and it houses one of the greatest museums in the world, the Hermitage Museum.

I get a special energy every time I visit this place. However, being there in the winter was a unique experience. It’s that special connection with Russia during winter months as no nation on the planet earth embraces winter the way Russian people do.

When I stood there, I felt the deep connection with the Imperial Russia, with the unique Russian soul and with the turbulent Russian history. So many changes happened here; empires vanished and new leaders came to power. Even the name of the city changed from St. Petersburg to Petrograd to Leningrad and finally back to its original name St. Petersburg. Locals today simply call it Piter.

It was short and sweet

It was a quick visit to the cultural capital of Russia and my favourite city in the entire world. I was happy to discover another side of the city which is the winter side. The temperature was between -5 and -20 during my stay there so it was cold, even for someone who lived in Canada for many years like me, it still felt cold but with some help of Russian tea, it was bearable and I still managed to enjoy it. The snow was pure and beautiful and the atmosphere was friendly and hospitable and that brought a lot of peace to my heart.

I think it’s not a bad idea to visit St. Petersburg in the winter but it depends what kind of weather will be waiting for you in your visit. In my visit, it was cold but it was clear and sunny so I was able to enjoy the beauty of snow colour. Streets were clean as there was no rain mixed with snow or mud so I didn’t have any problem while walking around. I was walking for at least 4 hours everyday.

St. Petersburg is definitely more affordable than cities in Western Europe or North America but it’s not that cheap. In fact, some restaurants and cafes have exactly same prices as in my city Toronto. However, public transportation and taxis are cheap. You can use a very convenient and reliable taxi App (Yandex) and it deducts from credit card so you don’t have to worry about carrying cash. I recommend staying in Airbnb as I had great experiences staying in apartments there in my next visits. However, in this visit I stayed in a nice hotel and it was perfect.

Russia is a developed country, it actually keeps on impressing me every time I visit it. I saw people paying with their cell phones in Russia before I saw that in Canada!! You rarely need to use any cash in St. Petersburg as cards are accepted everywhere.

I walked on a frozen river, I consumed huge amounts of Russian tea, I met some great people, I discovered more of the deep Russian soul, and I reconnected with my favourite city. It was a short and sweet.

Take a look at the rest of the photos below and …Enjoy πŸ™‚

What a beauty!
Neva river is completely frozen
Another frozen river
You can even see footsteps on this canal
This trip was really worth it
Good bye St. Petersburg!

Tunisia..The Land of Harissa, Olive oil, and Freedom! πŸ‡ΉπŸ‡³

The flight

I flew with TunisAir from Casablanca to Tunis and the total duration of the flight was a bit less than 3 hours. It was on time, boarding went relatively smooth, and flight was generally comfortable. However, the plane was a bit old, food was inedible, no in-flight entertainment, and seats were in a bad shape. I didn’t have high expectations about the flight as I already knew that TunisAir is going through a turbulent time. On the other hand, cabin crew were very nice, friendly and professional. When I was offered “tea or coffee”, I answered with “Coffee, please” and said that in Arabic, the flight attendant was curious and asked me in a sweet Tunisian Arabic dialect “Where are you from?”. I always pause for moment when someone asks me this question as it’s always hard for me to give a quick precise answer but at the same time, I don’t want to tell my life story to whoever asks me this question. Therefore, this time it worked out and I managed to give a short answer in one sentence. That’s not the end of the story as my answer opened another interesting conversation. She was extremely warm and welcoming and I immediately realized that this is just the beginning and I am going to meet many friendly and interesting people there in Tunisia.

Arrival in Tunis-Carthage Airport

The plane has landed in Tunis-Carthage airport. Shortly after, I was transferred to the airport terminal by bus. Tunis-Carthage airport is small, old, and very crowded. There was a long queue at the passport control. When it was my turn, I handled over my passport to the passport control officer. “Are you from Kuwait?”, he asked. “No, I am Canadian” , I answered. Let me explain something here; it seems that passport control officers in Arab countries always ask people who have Arab roots but hold a Western citizenship about their country of origin. I was never asked about my country of origin anywhere I travelled to except in Arabic countries, which is interesting. Anyhow, he asked me if I am originally from Kuwait because it’s shown in the passport as my place of birth. I said “No, I am not a Kuwaiti” . He asked me again; “Originally, where are you from?” . I was like “Oh yeah, originally I am Palestinian”. “Ok! You’re welcome here”, he said it in a a firm yet a bit hospitable tone. I was happy to get my passport stamped and to be done with all that. Later, I got a local sim card with data plan, paid about 4.5 USD for 5 GB internet and went to the taxi stand to start negotiating a price for a taxi ride to my airbnb apartment. The negotiation took a few minutes. In the end, I agreed to pay around 9 USD for a taxi ride to Sidi Bou SaΓ―d area where my apartment is located. The taxi driver was a cool guy and we immediately started interesting conversations about football, revolution, history, Canada, Europe, Palestinian/Israeli conflict, food, and so many other things.

Right after I arrived in Sidi Bou SaΓ―d area
Really delicious Italian pizza in Tunisia

I arrived in my Airbnb place in Sidi Bou SaΓ―d. Since I didn’t eat anything on the plane, I was starving. I searched for a place to eat in google maps and found one pizza place nearby with great reviews; I went there and had a tasty and flavourful Italian pizza and once again, the owner asked me the same question which I was asked on the plane in an incredibly friendly and hospitable tone “where are you from?” and answering him started another long conversation. Apparently, Tunisians love it when you tell them “I have Palestinian roots”. It felt great.

Tunis the capital

After Pizza, I needed to go to downtown Tunis (Avenue Habib Bourguiba) to see the capital in the early evening. The ride from Sidi Bou Said to Tunis took around 20 minutes in a taxi and costed about 6 USD. It was a Sunday evening so it wasn’t crazy busy but I was fascinated to be in this historical avenue where thousands of Tunisians protested and eventually celebrated after the dictator Ben Ali has fled the country after weeks of mass protests culminated in a victory for people power over one of the Arab world’s most repressive regimes.

I went to a nice little restaurant/cafe (I was full after the Pizza) so I tried a small dish called Harissa which is basically a Tunisian hot chili pepper paste that Tunisian people are obsessed with. Yes, Harissa is an obsession for Tunisians as they add it to most of their dishes. It is spicy and delicious especially with warm olive oil and when it is dipped in fresh baguette. After a few days, I became addicted to it and I now truly miss it. When I was inside the restaurant, I noticed something and that was my first culture shock; people smoke indoor in Tunisia and no one seems to be bothered about it.

Sidi Bou SaΓ―d

Next day, I spent the first half of the day in the stunning Sidi Bou Said; it was a walking distance from my airbnb place. Had a coffee there and walked around to enjoy the beauty of the white and blue houses. The view of Mediterranean from Cafe des Delices is stunningly beautiful. Sidi Bou Said is the Tunisia’s Santorini and I sincerely believe that this place is underrated and it deserves much more social media attention and credit.

What a stunning view of Mediterranean
Beautiful Sidi Bou Said

No trip to Sidi Bou Said is complete without trying the famous Bambalouni (deep fried Tunisian Doughnut) which is fresh, warm, and delicious. I had one as a breakfast and the price I paid for it was less 30 cents (yes, you heard it right). The taste is great but I must admit that it’s very sweet and full of sugar!

Bambolouni is a must in Sidi Bou Said!

Medina of Tunis

Medina de Tunis

In the afternoon, I went to the city centre to explore Medina of Tunis, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Medina is busy, chaotic, colourful, authentic, and charming. It’s an ideal place to explore the deep roots of Tunisian culture and to do some great shopping if you are into that (I am personally not into shopping while travelling as I prefer to travel light).

Apart from shops inside Medina, there is Al-Zaytouna mosque that is located in the centre of Medina; the mosque is famous to host one of the oldest universities in the history of Islam. The mosque was built in the 8th century and the view of the mosque and its minaret from the roof top cafe is really amazing.

Al-Zaytouna Mosque’s Minaret
A roof top cafe in Medina

After an interesting tour in Medina, and after having a cup of Turkish coffee on the roof top cafe, I wanted to try local cuisine so my Tunisian friend recommended a great restaurant in Medina where we had lunch. I had a Tunisian meat Couscous and it was delicious. However, once again, Tunisians are obsessed with Harissa so it was spicy but I like spicy food so the taste was great. There is a photo of the dish below and you can see that it’s full of chili pepper, if you zoom in πŸ™‚

Tunisian Couscous is delicious and … full of Harissa πŸ™‚

Medina of Tunis is very authentic and real! It’s true there are many shops to sell tourists over-priced goods but its also full of locals who are there to shop, eat, or spend time with friends and family. It’s a must see spot and I highly recommend checking it out.

Bardo Museum

Staying in Sidi Bou Said area has its pros and cons. The biggest advantage about staying there is being in the central of a charming area with amazing views and relaxed environment but one disadvantage is that it is a bit outside the city. Luckily, Tunisia is a very cheap destination if you are coming from Europe, North America, or the Middle East. Therefore, a 20 minutes taxi ride would cost around 5 USD or so. However, if you are on a super tight budget, you can take the TGM train (ticket costs less than a dollar) note that the train is old and sometimes very crowded but it does the job; journey takes about 40 minutes.

We visited Bardo museum; it is the 2nd largest in Africa in terms of richness of collections after the Egyptian museum. The museum houses a huge number of Roman mosaics; some of the displayed items are gigantic and the amount of details is just incredible. However, I must admit that the museum was a bit tired and not in good shape, which is really sad. As you know, Tunisia went -and still going- through a difficult economical situation after the revolution. I am sure that Tunisia is now on the right track to become the first real democracy in the Arab world and people there are serious about it. Anyway, A ticket to the museum costs around 4 USD.

After the museum tour, we headed to a roof top bar -it’s called Jamaica- and the whole building (it’s a hotel, actually) along with elevators and the bar itself reminded me of the 1980s. It was a weird yet interesting place where I was able to see the main avenue in Tunis (Habib Bourgiba Avenue) from the top of a 12 floors building, wasn’t a bad view at all.

Carthage ruins

Carthage ruins is another UNESCO world heritage and a unique archaeological and cultural site. I don’t exaggerate if I say that Carthage ruins alone can be a great reason to visit Tunisia especially if you have an interest in learning more about Roman history and culture. These Carthage sites are incredible and I spent a good 3 to 4 hours roaming around them. Price of ticket is around 4.3 USD and it gives you an access to 6 archaeological sites. Out of these 6 sites, I visited 4 of them; Baths of Antoninus, Carthage Amphitheatre, Roman Villas, and Punic Port. The first 3 sites are really close to each other so no need to worry about transportation. However, it’s about 30 minutes walk (or 6 minutes by car) from one of these 3 sites to Punic Port. I was exploring sites on my own but an experienced guide -he’s been a guide since 1978- suggested to give me a guided tour for 30 minutes at the Baths of Antoninus; I thought it’s a good idea so decided to go for it and it turned out to be a great idea as the guide was really experienced and knowledgeable; He gave me a comprehensive history lecture about Carthage and I really enjoyed his company. It costed me around 9 USD and it’s something I recommend doing, especially if you are in a group so you can share cost.

La Marsa

Not far away from Carthage ruins, there’s a beautiful coastal town called La Marsa; the view of Mediterranean from there is absolutely stunning. It’s an ideal spot to meditate and think about all the great things I experienced in the trip. I was deeply touched by the great amount of hospitality, generosity, and friendliness that I received from Tunisian people. I deeply connected with many people I met there and I discovered that they have some great values. Also, it’s fascinating how they fought bravely to defeat the dictator and to get their freedom back. When I was at La Marsa beach enjoying the beautiful view of the sea, I memorized the beautiful words of the Tunisian poem which some verses of it are in the Tunisian National Anthem “If, one day people desire to live, destiny must surely respond. And their night will then begin to fade, and their chains break and fall”.

La Marsa beach

Back to Sidi Bou Said

You can easily tell that Sidi Bou Said was my favourite spot in this Trip to Tunisia. It’s such a charming underrated town that many of us never heard of. I was able to explore more places in the town during my last day. However, I must admit that I had a hard time by some shop owners when I decided to get some small gifts for friends and family. They were truly pushing too much! Looks like I was there in low season so they didn’t have many other clients so they were desperate to sell me loads of things I didn’t need.

I did my best to visit the places which I planned to see before the trip. There are some other spots which I couldn’t visit due to lack of time and energy. I would definitely do my best to visit them if I get the chance to visit Tunisia again:

-Hammamet (beautiful beaches)
-Djerba Island (arguably the most touristic spot in Tunisia during the summer)
-City of Sousse (beautiful coastal city)
-Kairouan Mosque (one of the oldest places of worship in the Islamic world)
-Sahara (such a magical place)

How do we heal from the love of Tunisia?

In my last hours there, I thought that there are some great reasons to visit Tunisia; warm sun, beaches, food, history, culture, etc… but there is something that is, in my opinion, more important than any of the above; it’s the warmth and hospitality of Tunisian people. After visiting Tunisia, I realized why Mahmoud Darwish -regarded as the national Palestinian poet- said these beautiful words about Tunisia “How do we heal from the love of Tunisia?”

Summary

Tunisia is a great country to visit; beautiful beaches, charming spots, thousands of years history, sunny destination, affordable, good food and awesome people.

Best time to visit Tunisia? Probably between April to June and September to October. You can still go there in summer months (Djerba Island is very popular in the summer) to enjoy the beach but it might be too hot in some areas such as Sahara or even inside the city. I was there in January and it was alright but I wasn’t able to fully enjoy the beach or to do any water sport.

During my stay, I stayed in a nice airbnb apartment in Sidi Bou Said area, the apartment was neat and clean and served its purpose. There are plenty of other options such as hotels and airbnb apartments and rooms, and hostels. I noticed that hotels have international rates so they can be costly so I decided to go for an airbnb apartment.

Transportation is easy and cheap; you can either hail a taxi or use a taxi App “Bolt”. It’s a convenient app but you still have to use cash to pay the driver. By the way, just like Morocco, you will have to use a lot a of cash in Tunisia as credit cards aren’t widely accepted. Another method of transportation is public transit; there are train stops in Tunis city centre, Sidi Bou Said, Carthage, and La Marsa so it is easy, cheap, and convenient to move around these spots. Also, many Tunisian cities are connected through railway.

Food is good and cheap and portions are huge. I really liked the taste of Harissa but if I have to choose between Moroccan and Tunisian cuisines, I would choose Moroccan! Sorry Tunisian people πŸ™‚

About getting to Tunisia, if you live in Europe, that should be very easy as there are direct flights from most of major (or even smaller) European cities. In the summer, there are even more charter flights hence more options. If you come from Middle East or Asia, Emirates, EgyptAir and Qatar Airways have daily flights to Tunis. If you come from North America, you will most likely have to fly to Paris, London, or Frankfurt and then change there and then fly to Tunis.

That’s everything I can say about Tunisia for now! I hope you enjoyed reading this and let me know if you have comments or questions.

Stay tuned for more!!

The last cup of coffee

Morocco, What a Colorful Country! πŸ‡²πŸ‡¦

I’ve been dreaming about visiting Morocco for years…

I always wanted to visit Morocco; the idea of visiting a country that is vibrant, exotic, beautiful, warm, hospitable truly fascinated me. I even shared my wish with many people so Morocco was always under my radar until the opportunity arrived in January 2020 and finally, the dream became true. However, I had a very short time to plan for the trip so I ended up filling an 8 days itinerary in a very short time. Luckily, everything worked out according to the plan.

Flew with Aegean Airlines from Kiev with a short transit in Athens, was generally comfortable and on time.

In 8 days, I visited 5 Moroccan cities. I landed in Marrakesh airport; the city of Marrakesh was my first contact with Morocco and what a contact it was! I spent 3 nights in Marrakesh. After that, I visited the cities of Rabat, Tangier, Chefchaouen, and finally Casablanca, where I left Morocco from the airport. I used trains for transportation (except the trip from Tangier to Chefchouen and back) and can’t recommend Moroccan trains enough; they are reliable, clean, affordable, and very comfortable.

TGV style high speed trains in Morocco are reliable and affordable, paid about $20 for a 1st class ticket. Good deal!

I was amazed at the beauty of the country. Morocco is colorful, diverse, and really affordable. The infrastructure in big cities truly exceeded my expectations, especially transportation. Note that I traveled to 5 cities in Morocco so I can’t say much about the entire country. However, the impression I had was generally positive. I didn’t expect it to be that clean, safe, and even modern!

1st stop: Marrakesh

Jemaa el-Fnaa square in Marrakesh, this place is full of life!
Lamb Tagine in Marrakesh; one of the best meat dishes I’ve ever had

Marrakesh is the most touristic and the most visited city in Morocco and must be there in any Moroccan itinerary. I wanted to combine Marrakesh with Fes but due to lack of time, I had to choose Marrakesh over Fes hoping that I will have the opportunity to visit Fes in the future. I spent 3 nights in Marrakesh and felt that it wasn’t long enough so I would love to come back and visit it again. Marrakesh is a friendly city, Marrakesh is safe, and Marrakesh is much more beautiful than I thought; all buildings are painted in red colour and food is out of this world. I had some best meals in my life when I was in Marrakesh. Getting around in Marrakesh is fairly easy as there are cheap taxis (less than 2 dollars for a city ride) and buses. Take the small taxi (petit taxi) if you are a solo traveller or in a small group. Don’t take the grand taxi if you are 1 or 2 persons as it’s significantly more expensive than the petit taxi.

Marrakesh Train Station
Gorgeous Jardin Majorelle

Places to visit in Marrakesh:
-Jemma el-Fnna square
-Medina Souk
-Koutoubia Mosque
-Bahia Palace (I didn’t visit it due to lack of time)
-Gardin Majorelle
-Yves St. Lauren Museum (combined ticket with Gardin Majorelle)
-Walk around in Gueliz at night
-Marrakesh train station
-Eat in Chez Lamine
-Barometre Marrakesh (you can have cocktails with Moroccan spices)

2nd stop: Rabat

Rabat’s Kasbah of Udayas from outside

Rabat is such a beautiful relaxed city and it was an ideal stop after the crazy Marrakesh. It’s the political capital of Morocco. It is true that Rabat is a quiet city but it’s also very pretty, clean, and organized. I was fortunate to meet a friend there who showed me around (it’s always easier when you are with a local, isn’t it?). I spent only 1 night in Rabat and I guess that it wasn’t enough so maybe I should go back someday.

Beautiful Kasbah in Rabat
I truly liked Rabat

Its worth mentioning that I arrived in Rabat after a 3 and a half hour train ride from Marrakesh. You can check train schedule here . When I was there in Morocco, I was unable to buy a ticket online using my international credit card (only Moroccan cards were accepted). However, it looks like that it’s now possible to buy tickets online using overseas cards. Anyhow, you can easily buy tickets at the station 1 or 2 days or even a few days before departure. I recommend using any of the self-service kiosks as I personally did so and was done in less than 2 minutes. Note that I am not sure if these machines take international credit cards so you might need cash to buy your ticket.

My beautiful and cheap airbnb apartment in Rabat (less than 30USD per night)

3rd stop: Tangier

I arrived in Tangier after spending 1 night in Rabat. The train ride took around 2 hours and the price of the ticket was about 22 USD. I booked a first class ticket simply because the price difference between the 1st and 2nd class tickets wasn’t really significant. Besides, I wanted to experience the 1st class in the new Moroccan high speed train (the fastest train in Africa) and it turned out to be a good decision as it was one of the most comfortable train rides I’ve ever had.

Not a big lover of seafood but I had to try this in Tangier! Was tasty!

Back to Tangier, it’s a coastal city in the North of Morocco and it’s Morocco’s gateway to Europe. From Tangier, you can take a ferry to Spain or many other European countries and many Europeans arrive in Tangier first when they visit Morocco. The city is nice and interesting and seafood is really good there (not a seafood lover but people insisted that I should try seafood there). Also, people are cool and open-minded there, you can feel the international spirit in the city so I generally felt good about being there. I spent 2 night in Tangier. In my first day, I had a great seafood meal in a local restaurant and then had a 25 minuts taxi ride to Cape Spartel, where the Mediterranean meets the Atlantic. I arrived there at sunset so I was lucky to capture the golden hour. The beauty of that spot -Cape Spartel- is difficult to be described by words. Enjoy the photos below.

Magnificent Cape Spartel
Stunning Cape Spartel

Fourth stop: Chefchaouen (the blue city)

Chefchouen or simply (The blue city)

Another reason why I decided to spend 2 nights in Tangier was because I wanted to visit Chefchouen. It’s not very easy to reach Chefchaouen as no trains go there. One way to reach it is by taking a bus from Tangier to Tetouan and then change there and take another bus to Chefchaouen. Normally, I wouldn’t have minded doing that but since I didn’t have time, I needed to find a quicker way to reach there and then come back in the same day. Therefore, for the first time in my trip, I decided to take a tour! I found a reliable tour online with good reviews, registered and paid. Next day, they picked me up and drove me to Chefchoauen; it was a beautiful scenic drive but it was a bit exhausting for the driver as roads are a bit narrow and mountainous and there is a very strict speed limit control. We made a stop in a nice cafe then continued to the blue city.

The driver told me many heart-breaking stories about Andalucian Arabs who were exiled from Spain and first they settled on top of these mountains (Rif mountains)

After about a 3 hours drive, we arrived in the beautiful Chefchoauen. A very nice and friendly guide was waiting for us where we had a tour in the city. I had great conversations with the guide and he even told me that he’s originally from the city of Ouarzazate which is a city in Southern Morocco; it’s the gateway to Sahara desert and one of the most beautiful cities in the country. I will definitely include it in my itinerary when I visit Morocco again. Along with cities of Fes and Essaouira, which I couldn’t visit in this trip.

Town sqaure of Chefchaouen

I am a native Arabic speaker so it was an interesting experience for me to communicate in my mother tongue while traveling as I rarely do that (I rarely travel to Arabic speaking countries). However, I realized that Moroccan Arabic isn’t exactly the same as my Middle Eastern Arabic. In fact, it’s totally different and sometimes it’s impossible to understand it. North Africans (especially Moroccans and Algerians) generally understand the Middle Eastern dialect but unfortunately, we can’t understand much of what they say and therefore, I was lost in translation in multiple occasions that I even asked the guide to shift to English, imagine? Yes, it was that hard. Moroccan Arabic is heavily influenced by Amazigh language and to a lesser extent, by French and Spanish.

Amazigh letters? I guess so…
The instagram spot in the blue city Chefchaouen

After an interesting tour and some great conversations with the guide about history and politics; Palestine, Canada, Europe, Morocco, etc … The cool and friendly tour guide recommended a place for a bite. I checked google maps reviews (like I always do) before heading there and it seemed to be alright so went there and had the best Couscous in the entire Morocco trip. It was delicious and very colorful. After the meal, I walked around in the city again, bought some little souvenirs for friends and family, and went back to the car to drive back to Tangier.

Moroccan Couscous is colourful, delicious, and flavourful

Last stop: Casablanca

Well, many of you heard that Casablanca isn’t the prettiest city in Morocco and it’s probably not a great idea to spend a lot of time there. In fact, some people even truly disliked the city. I think that I can understand this opinion about the city. However, luckily, I still managed to have a good time there but the city is definitely not as charming as other cities I visited in Morocco. It’s the commercial hub of Morocco and a huge city; it’s very busy and crowded and sometimes it can be really stressful to be there. The only gerat landmark in the city -in my opinion- is Hassan II Mosque which is a gigantic mosque set on outcrop jutting over the ocean.

I stayed in this cute airbnb apartment in Casablanca
Hssan II mosque is truly impressive

Summary

I had a great time in Morocco; it was exciting to learn more about a culture of a country which is exotic, beautiful, and mysterious. I can confirm that Morocco is a very safe destination to travel to. It’s also an affordable spot where value for money is really good. Moroccans are generally friendly and hospitable and I had great experiences dealing with them there.

During my stay, I stayed in airbnb apartments. I recommend using Airbnb or traditional Riads. You can also stay in hotels but I guess that hotels there have international prices (a bit expensive for Morocco). I didn’t stay in hotels myself so I can’t say much about it. About hostels, I read there are some great hostels in Moroccan cities with wonderful reviews and of course, very cheap prices. Morocco is an ideal destination for back packers as it’s one of the most affordable countries I’ve ever been to.

Transportation between cities is very easy and convenient using Moroccan trains. They now have high speed trains between Casablanca and Tangier (stops in Rabat). Apart from that, other non high speed trains which I tried between other cities were really good and comfortable.

About food, Moroccan cuisine is delicious but it’s probably not the lightest food in the world (just like any other delicious food). The bread there is really good and tasty and was enjoying that everyday. Something else I liked about Morocco, which is the fresh orange juice, it’s everywhere and it’s very cheap and tasty! You should try it.

About best time to visit Morocco; I think the best time to visit the country would be from mid of March till end of May and then end of September till beginning of November. Some people might disagree with me but I heard that Morocco can be really hot and incredibly crowded in the summer. I was there in January so it was a tiny bit cold (I’m Canadian so as long as it’s above zero then I am fine) but I guess it was alright as it was always sunny and beautiful.

You will need a lot cash as credit cards are not used everywhere, be prepared to that.

Finally, if you fly in or out of Casablanca, be ready for some delays as there are numerous security checks so make sure to arrive in the airport ahead of time. My passport was checked in Casablanca airport more than 5 times and there were long queues everywhere. Even my luggage were checked thoroughly, more than in any other airport I’ve been to so that can be a pain sometimes but I was there ahead of time so it went fine.

That’s all about Morocco for now. It’s my first long blog and I hope you enjoy reading it!

Stay tuned for more!

Traveling to Germany and Poland soon…

Germany & Poland trip

I will spend a few days in Germany and Poland end of February so will be visiting Frankfurt, Berlin, Gdansk, and Warsaw. I visited Germany numerous times before but it’s been ages since the last time I visited Berlin, probably more than 8 or 9 years ago. About Poland, I’ve never been to Gdansk and Warsaw before so I’m very excited about the trip. I visited Poland as a country before though and spent a few days in Krakow.

Finally, launching a travel blog!

It is happening! I forced myself to go ahead and launch this travel blog hoping to encourage everyone to get out of their comfort zone and explore the world.

Stay tuned!

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